Monday, August 17, 2009

A University Leader's Goal: "Taking New Biotechnology ... to Market?"

An article from the San Francisco Chronicle noted how the new Chancellor of the University of California - Davis (UC-Davis), Linda Katehi, is already contending with controversy. One brief section about her goals for the campus caught my eye. The article noted that Dr Katehi (who has a doctorate in engineering) holds 16 patents, then:

Now Katehi wants to transfer that entrepreneurship to the campus she'll lead.

'The campus is in a wonderful position to become a major force in improving and strengthening the economy of the state,' Katehi told The Chronicle, adding that she'll help UC Davis to become more aggressive in taking new biotechnology and agriculture products to market.

So it would seem that Dr Katehi's goals are making UC-Davis more entrepreneurial, strengthening the California economy, and marketing selling biotechnology products. All of that would make some sense if UC-Davis were a biotechnology company.

However, it is not. UC-Davis, of course, is a major academic campus of the University of California system, with multiple graduate and professional schools, including a medical school. Its mission is:

Through a distinctive tradition of core-discipline excellence, interdisciplinary collaborations and productive partnerships, UC Davis teaches students to think critically, objectively and creatively and to be lifelong learners, engaged leaders and productive citizens; pursues research to advance knowledge and to address state, national and global challenges; and serves the public through the generation, broad dissemination and application of knowledge.

The statement does mention "application" as well as dissemination of knowledge. It seems quite a stretch, though, for that one word to justify putting a priority on entrepreneurship, economic development, and marketing biotechnology products. In fact, Dr Katehi's goals seem to be far removed from, if not in conflict with the university's mission. This is just a recent example of how the leaders of academic institutions seem to be forgetting or radically deconstructing their academic missions, and in particular, how leaders of academic medicine seem to think that their job is to sell drugs and devices.

Consider how Dr David Korn, then Senior Vice President, Division of Biomedical and Health Sciences Research of the of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), wrote that medical schools and their parent universities must confront "societal demands that they become engines of economic development," so that they must "create a precarious equipoise between the world and values of commerce and those of traditional public service." Furthermore, the government and the public, " impatient for new medicinal products, disease preventions, and cures," "fail to understand or too easily forget that in our capitalistic economy the pathway by which research invention becomes beneficial application is often totally dependent on venture capital, the availability of which commonly demands the active participation of the academic inventors in the commercial venture; put simply, no participation, no money. It is this demand, more than any other cause, that has driven the dramatic increase in medical faculty entrepreneurship." [Korn D. Conflicts of interest in biomedical research. JAMA 2000; 284: 2234-7. Link here.] Thus, nine years ago, Dr Korn, and the AAMC seemed to have acquiesced to a radical restructuring of the academic medical mission to put entrepreneurship, and the development and marketing of commercial products ahead of teaching, research and patient care.

This fundamental change of the focus on academic medicine seems to have been accepted, if not embraced by other academic leaders, like Dr Katehi. It does seem to correlate with some notable changes in how academic medical leaders think and act: devaluing the education mission and demanding that faculty put a priority on bringing in money (see post here); , forming their own, often highly lucrative financial relationships with health care corporations (see post here); acquiescing to faculty becoming "key opinion leaders" and thus supporting marketing of drugs and devices (see post here and this link); allowing continuing medical education to serve marketing purposes (see link here); allowing drug and device company sponsors of clinical research to suppress and manipulate the research (see link here and here); etc, etc. Thus it seems to underlie many of the most dysfunctional aspects of our current health care system.

I find it hard to believe that the public really would want existing respected academic institutions to be turned into biotechnology companies, without any plans to replace their academic roles, and that it wanted faculty members to turn into product developers and salespeople. (Yes, there may be good reason for faculty who do basic science, but not clinical research to consult for health care corporations, in certain instances. But that is a relatively minor, and somewhat separate point.)

In my humble opinion, one goal of meaningful health care reform would be to refocus academic medicine on its academic mission, and let drug and device companies alone develop and market their products.


Brian T. Edwards said...

I agree to an extent, but I also think that universities need better technology transfer strategies for the commercialization of academically vetted and verified technologies that would clearly benefit society at large. Very few universities even consider the potential to bring in additional funds to support programs and recruit/retain the leading researchers through technology transfer. I agree that excessive emphasis on academic entrepreneurialism undermines academic integrity to a degree. An appropriate balance must be struck and clearly defined across the full cycle of innovation, from thought to lab to market.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Universities are supposed to teach and do research. Medical schools also provide patient care. Development of products, and certainly marketing of products is at best tangential to their academic (and patient care) missions.

I agree that there ought to be mechanisms to help disseminate scientific discoveries made in universities to facilitate their practical value.

However, the notion that product development and marketing ought to be "balanced," that is, made more or less equal to the universities' academic missions amounts to a radical redefinition of academic institutions, which, IMHO, is not be good for students, faculty, or society as a whole.